The need for balance seems to arise in every aspect of horse riding and ownership. Trainers push for a balanced ride, farriers trim and shoe horses for a balanced hoof and owners aim to provide horses with the right balance of forage and feed.
“Hoof quality is determined by several factors, including genetics, environment and nutrition,” said Dr. Karen Davison, equine nutritionist at Purina Animal Nutrition. “Some horses inherit weak hooves, and that can't be changed, but proper care and nutrition can help a horse develop and maintain the best hooves genetically possible.”
The reverse is true, too: Improper care and inadequate or unbalanced nutrition can lead to hoof problems in a horse with the genes for great hooves.
Elements of nutrition
Several nutrients can influence hoof growth and quality. A well-balanced diet will contain the nutritional elements needed for optimal hoof growth, but each horse is unique, and different life stages, performance levels and lifestyles can affect hoof quality.
Some key nutrients and their impacts on hoof health include:
* Protein. The hoof structure is primarily made of the protein keratin. Methionine, an essential amino acid, is thought to be important for hoof quality. However, balance is key; if fed in excess, methionine is also believed to cause a depletion of iron, copper and zinc. This can lead to crumbling horn and white line disease.
* Fat. A diet with adequate levels of fat can be beneficial to the hoof. Fats create a permeability barrier that help prevent bacteria and fungi from entering the hoof horn.
* Zinc. Zinc is necessary for normal keratinization of the hoof. A 1973 study showed that horses with insufficient hoof horn strength had less zinc in the hoof horn than horses with healthy, undamaged horns.
* Calcium and phosphorous. Calcium is essential for proper cell attachment in the hoof horn and wall. The right ratio of calcium and phosphorous is required, though, because excess phosphorous can block the absorption of calcium, leading to weak and abnormal bones.
* Selenium and vitamin E. Selenium and vitamin E are important antioxidants for protecting cell membranes. However, the balance of intake is crucial, because selenium toxicity can cause hair loss, coronitis and coronary band bleeding, as well as sloughing of the hoof and laminitis.
* Biotin. Perhaps the most-researched vitamin for hoof growth, biotin is thought to help with hoof integrity, coat, mane and tail growth. Studies have reported varying effects, but horses with poor hoof quality despite a balanced diet and favorable environment might benefit from a therapeutic dose of biotin. Research indicates a therapeutic dose of biotin to be 15-20 mg per day.
“For the majority of horses, a diet with naturally occurring biotin, a suitable amino acid and fatty acid balance, as well as proper vitamin and mineral fortification, will support excellent hoof growth rates and quality,” Davison said.
Certified journeyman farrier Donnie Perkinson with the American Farriers Assn. added, “The foot reflects everything about the horse, and nutrition is a paramount aspect of the overall health of the horse.”
Every horse is different, and their nutritional and hoof requirements are significantly varied. Open dialogue among the farrier, veterinarian and nutritionist helps horse owners learn more about how feed affects horse health and well-being.